Dec 1, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Study: Hotter weather leads to utility shutoff for low-income homes

Animated illustration of a thermometer in the shape of a dollar bill sign, with temperature rising rapidly

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Warmer temperatures are leading more California low-income households to have their electricity disconnected, according to a study published in the journal Nature Energy.

The big picture: Rising temperatures and more frequent, hotter heat waves result in higher energy expenses. That becomes a crisis for households that can't afford them — and makes socioeconomic divides even worse for some of the communities hit hardest by climate change.

What they're saying: "This is adding to the tax of being poor," said Alan Barreca, economist and professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, who co-authored the study.

What they found: For each day between 2012 and 2017 with a temperature of 95°F, electricity expenses increased an average of 1.6% for nearly 300,000 low-income households in California.

Between the lines: According to reported disconnection and electricity data for the low-income households analyzed, the average summer utility bill was around $100, meaning a 1.6% expense increase amounts to an added $1.60.

  • But that is just the impact of one additional 95°F day, when the typical range can include several days that surge total energy costs, researchers say.
  • And each additional day above a 100°F threshold causes expenses to go up by $2.92 — which adds up.
  • "I think a lot of people who haven't been poor would say, 'Oh, that doesn't seem like much,'" Barreca said — but in reality the added utility cost can be "significant" for those living paycheck to paycheck.

The increased risk of having their electricity cut off came roughly two to three months after utility bills were due, with the likelihood increasing an average of 1.2% 50 to 75 days later.

  • "This is suggesting with hotter summers into the future, falls are going to become financially more precarious, as people are hit with their high energy bills from the summer months and they're overdue, and that those months are going to be a lot harder on families," Barreca tells Axios.
  • For parts of Southern California, that time of year can see heat waves and Santa Ana wind events colliding, further magnifying the risk of utilities being shut off.

Meanwhile: Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, co-founder and CEO of Promise, a California-based startup that works with utilities to provide flexible payment plans, tells Axios she's seen an increase in demand for their services due to the financial stress of COVID-19, which is compounding with rising temperatures and inflation.

  • "What we're seeing is as temperatures become more extreme, and the cost of fuel increases, so the cost of delivering the services is higher, meaning the cost to receive the service, and the need, is greater," Ellis-Lamkins said.

As the planet warms, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, heat waves are likely to intensify and become more frequent, with low-income communities of color bearing the brunt of harmful human activities.

  • "The current kind of climate crisis we're in is only going to get worse and in the midst of a global financial crisis, we will have to figure out how people have access to these things," Ellis-Lamkins said.
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